Inside OptomCAS Part II: Your Personal Statement for Applying to Optometry School

June 17, 2015

In the previous post, we zoomed in on the Letters of Evaluation (LOEs) section of the application for optometry school, clarifying requirements and providing some pearls for effectively fulfilling them. This time we turn our attention to another crucial part of the application: the personal statement, a.k.a., the essay.

The LOEs and the personal statement [both of which you’ll manage through the Optometry Centralized Application Service (OptomCAS)] are relied upon heavily by the schools and colleges of optometry as they determine whether you’re the type of person who can succeed as a student in their programs and as a future optometrist. Your official instructions for composing the essay are as follows: “Please describe what inspires your decision for becoming an optometrist, including your preparation for training in this profession, your aptitude and motivation, the basis for your interest in optometry, and your future career goals. Your essay should be limited to 4500 characters.”

While the instructions have a kind of “just the facts,” flat quality, your essay will need to be the opposite of that in order to provide the admissions office with information they’ll notice and appreciate. According to Michael Bacigalupi, OD, MS, FAAO, Assistant Dean for Student Affairs & Admissions at Nova Southeastern University College of Optometry (NSU), “The personal statement allows me to get to know a student much better than just filling out blank spaces and checking off boxes on an application. It gives me a better sense of who the applicant is. Through the personal statement, students can convey what we’re looking for, which is motivation, dedication and a love of the profession of optometry. Those qualities aren’t measurable by OAT scores and GPAs.” By the way, Dr. Bacigalupi uses the word “love” of the profession on purpose. “I want students to be passionate about becoming an optometrist,” he says. “Like in any health profession, the rewards can be substantial, but the road to success is not easy, so you have to love it.”

Like some other schools and colleges of optometry, NSU requires applicants to submit an essay in addition to the personal statement. In fact, they ask for two supplemental essays. The two essay questions change from time to time, but for the last application cycle they were: 1) “What specifically are your reasons for choosing to apply to Nova Southeastern University College of Optometry?” and 2) “Professional school is very challenging. What experiences in your life and/or undergraduate career have prepared you for the rigors of optometry school?”

Dr. Bacigalupi says the statements and essays (he reads about 3,000 per year) that catch his attention are the ones that tell a story and talk about a crossroad or a serious decision an applicant made in life that led him or her to optometry as a career. He cites as an example, “Let’s say someone was an at-risk youth but realized that’s not the way he or she wanted to end up so instead took the right path and decided to focus on school. That’s a story that illustrates motivation.” He also recalls an essay from an applicant who had temporarily lost his vision, which led to the realization of how important sight is in daily life and the desire to help safeguard it for others. Don’t worry if your experiences aren’t as dramatic as those, Dr. Bacigalupi says, just be honest while providing insight into who you really are.

Essays that definitely don’t impress are those that seem to be quickly thrown together or are poorly crafted and contain spelling or grammar errors. “What comes across through those things is that the applicant rushed through this step without much care, which may indicate a lack of commitment or that this isn’t that important to him or her,” Dr. Bacigalupi explains. He recommends having another person or people, perhaps with no ties to optometry, read the personal statement with an eye toward content, grammar and readability before it’s submitted. “That gives you insight into whether it’s readable and will be effective,” he says.

Need more inspiration and ideas about what to write about in your personal statement? ASCO points out in its Optometry Career Guide that, in general, optometry schools are looking for students who can demonstrate strong academic commitment as well as exhibit the potential to excel in deductive reasoning, interpersonal communication and empathy. They like to attract well-rounded candidates who have achieved not only in the classroom but also in other areas, such as in leadership ability. A disposition to serve others and a work ethic characterized by dedication and persistence are other desirable qualities. Adds Dr. Bacigalupi, “We want to see in the statement and essays that we’d be admitting teachable students who ultimately will make good colleagues; therefore, the right balance of people skills and academic abilities is very important.”

The 2015-2016 OptomCAS application cycle opens on July 1, so the time to start working on your essay is right about now. Good luck!